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Dharamsala notebook - Tibet debate

Members of the Tibetan exile community meeting in Dharamsala, India
It's a big week for Tibetan exiles meeting in Dharamsala

Members of the Tibetan exile community are meeting in the north Indian town of Dharamsala to discuss the future of their homeland. The BBC's Chris Morris reports on the atmosphere there.

"Hearty welcome to all the delegates to the first special meeting of the Tibetan people."

So say the banners hung at strategic locations around this tiny hill town in northern India.

But the meeting got off to an inauspicious start earlier this week, with some delegates worried that the stars were not well aligned.

"We should have been a little more careful about finding the most suitable day, by consulting our system of astrology," admitted the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche.

He advised people to take steps to avoid misfortune - don't do any work which involves water, he said, and keep livestock indoors during the day.

A Tibetan monk, Tsering
We shouldn't give up on autonomy or independence, but the most important thing is to do something about the suffering of the Tibetan people
Tsering
Tibetan monk
His warning seemed to have the desired effect because the meeting continued without calamity.

It was also a timely reminder that while Dharamsala is hearing many demands for change, this is still a community steeped in tradition.

Most of the meeting has taken place behind closed doors, but it remains the talk of the town. The hotels are full, and the air is thick with political gossip.

China's informants in Dharamsala - and one presumes they have many - must be working overtime. But there is no clear message for anyone to report back to their political masters.

Some delegates are fed up with the Dalai Lama's "middle way" approach - the effort to seek greater autonomy for Tibet in agreement with China.

"I personally think, even if it's not independence exactly, there has to be some sort of change," says Tenzin Nyesang.

She's come all the way from Boston, Massachusetts to attend this meeting.

"It's been 30 years since we've been on this path," she says, "and really nothing has happened."

Others are far more cautious. They fear an outright call for independence could lead to international isolation.

"We must continue to talk to the Chinese," says the Dalai Lama's brother, Gyalo Dhondup.

Unless we move to the Moon, he points out, they will always be our neighbours.

"There's no choice, it's not a question of liking or disliking. The people of China will eventually realise that what we are asking for is legitimate."

'Suffering'

But that message hasn't got through in Beijing. The Chinese authorities say the meeting here is meaningless, and the delegates don't represent Tibet itself.

So it's a big week for the exile community, and there are difficult decisions to be made. There has never been a meeting quite like this in decades of Tibetan struggle.

Delegates outside the Dharamsala venue
Although the Dalai Lama is in town, he stayed away from the meeting

Even so, life in "Little Lhasa" goes on as normal. There are craft shops and internet cafes, and robed monks wandering along streets plastered with adverts for yoga courses and meditational retreats.

The Dalai Lama is also in town, but he's stayed away from the meeting so far. He wants a meaningful discussion, without everyone deferring to his opinion.

For years he has won international praise for advocating peaceful negotiations, and a solution within the Chinese constitution. But he won't be around forever - and when he's gone, things could change. His frustration is beginning to show.

His trust in China, he told the BBC recently, is becoming "thinner, thinner, thinner."

Up the hill from the Dalai Lama's residence, at the Kirti monastery, dozens of monks sit cross-legged on cushions on the temple floor, chanting and praying as the sun begins to set over the Himalayan foothills.

This is a more traditional Tibetan Buddhist gathering. But even here the harsh reality of the outside world intrudes. On the walls outside are large graphic photographs of people killed during the protests against Chinese rule in Tibet last March.

"We shouldn't give up on autonomy or independence," says Tsering, one of the monks. "But the most important thing is to do something about the suffering of the Tibetan people."

And that, from here in Dharamsala, is the hardest task of all for the exile community.

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